Simulation helps community understand plight of the poor

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Over 40 local community members had the opportunity to experience the frustrations of living in poverty through a poverty simulation held at the First Baptist Church Family Life Center in Cassville on Feb. 27.

"The simulation in Cass-ville proved to be excellent," said Matthew Evans, OACAC resource development director from Springfield, who co-facilitated the simulation. "Those who participated in the event were very involved and brought a lot of different real life experiences to the table.

"They really grasped the ideas that were present during their 'month in poverty' and their experience reflected that,"?said Evans.

The poverty simulation was co-facilitated by Heather Lockard, OACAC program development specialist. Local OACAC employees and residents who have used OACAC services assisted during the simulation.

"This simulation is to help you understand what it is like to live in poverty where you are forced to survive from month to month," said Evans.

Each poverty simulation participant was assigned a character role to play during the simulation. Evans reminded participants that the activity was a simulation that should be taken seriously and not a game.

"These situations and statistics are real," said Evans. "There are around 32.9 million individuals living in poverty each year. During this simulation you will try to walk a mile in the shoes of the poor."

Participants were arranged in small groups or families and given simulation packets that included individual member profiles, a source of income, a list of bills and other important information.

"The expenses in your packet are average," said Evans. "They are not above or below the normal level."

To stress the frustrations and importance of transportation for families living in poverty, the simulation included transportation passes, which represented gas money, bus fair and transit time. Families were required to purchase transportation passes to travel to work, the bank, the grocery story or other locations.

The simulation was arranged in four 12-minute sessions, with each representing one week in a month. After each quarter, the participants were allowed a few minutes to discuss their progress and plan their next strategy.

"You will probably find that your instructions were not ample," said Evans. "You will struggle, but this is part of the simulation. You don't get a handbook in life and believe me, you are not given a handbook on how to get out of poverty."

In each family, at least one participant was assigned a full- or part-time job. Participants with full-time jobs were required to spend six of each 12-minute simulation session at work in order to receive a pay check. Part-time employees spent three minutes at work.

"Your goals are to keep your home secure, feed your family, keep your utilities on, pay your mortgage and other expenses and report to work," said Evans. "You also need to make sure your children attend school and have childcare when not at school."

By the end of the first week, most participants said that they didn't have enough time to get their checks cashed and pay bills after spending half of their time at work. Several children were left home alone and taken into protective custody, which forced families to pay an extra expense to take their children back home, and most children only received food at school.

By the third week, several families had not paid their mortgage or insurance payments and were facing eviction and the disconnection of utility services. Other families were stealing items and cash from families who left their homes unsecured or selling drugs in an attempt to make ends meet.

"I really learned how the system applies to many of the people who we serve," said King. "I learned about the frustrations they experience when they don't have a ride, and now I can understand why it is so difficult for them to keep appointments at times."

King's poverty simulation family, which had two working members, was able to pay most of its expenses by the end of the four sessions, but the members experienced struggles such as possible eviction and maintaining a safe home for children in the family.

Although other families felt safer, they had greater struggles meeting weekly expenses.

"We did very poorly," said Nancy Boyd, health department administrative assistant. "The restricted amount of time was the biggest challenge. The number one mistake we made was that we didn't look for resources and find out what was available and try to utilize those resources."

Boyd's family, which included two grandparents and two grandchildren, paid the mortgage and utility payments but was unable to purchase food, clothing or medication for a 7-year-old grandchild with attention deficit disorder.

"The medication should have been a big concern, but it wasn't," said Boyd. "Our car broke down, and we lost our children to Social Services once. Due to the immobility issue I had (Boyd's character was confined to a wheelchair), it was difficult. We were very disorganized.

"It gives you a greater appreciation of the people in these situations," said Boyd. "We are seeing more and more grandparents raising their grandchildren. It's easier to understand their frustrations and the amount of time that just surviving consumes."

Boyd said she hopes that she learned and will continue to learn more about the resources available in the local community that will allow her to help families through referrals and advice.

"This is definitely a struggle for families," said Tracy Holle, Cassville mayor. "Having the resources and knowing what is available is a big help for these families. I think we need more education as to what is available in our community."

Holle said she would like to see mortgage and utility companies required to distribute information on resources available to families that are struggling.

"This was a great experience," said Holle. "It's important for people to know that others have bad days too and this program takes a hard look at what these people go through."

The poverty simulation was conducted by OACAC with the assistance of the Barry County Health Department.

For information on scheduling a similar poverty simulation, call Lockard at 417-873-3342 or e-mail

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